Religion and Myth, by James Macdonald, , at sacred-texts.com
Religion in the widest sense may be defined as man's attitude towards the unseen, and the earliest forms of human thought furnish the clue from which must be traced the development of those great systems of religion that have at different periods been professed by the majority of men. Under the term religion we must include, not only beliefs in unseen spiritual agencies, but numerous customs, superstitions, and myths which have usually been regarded, by both travellers and students, as worthless and degrading, till within a comparatively recent period. Only by taking account of such, and comparing usages common among tribes far removed from the influence of civilisation with survivals in other parts of the world, can we arrive at any definite knowledge regarding the world's earliest systems of thought.
In both ancient Greece and Italy the union of
royal title with priestly functions was common. At Rome the tradition was, that the sacrificial king had been appointed to perform sacred functions formerly belonging to the ruling monarch, after the overthrow of the ancient dynasty and the expulsion of the kings. * In republican Athens the second magistrate of the city was called King, and his wife Queen. The functions of both were religious. Other examples will occur to readers familiar with the classics. Such traditions and usages leave no doubt but in very early times kings were not only civil rulers, but also the priests who offered the sacrifices and stood between the worshippers and the unseen world.
The king would thus be revered as the ruler and father of his people who protected and cared for them. He would be also alternately feared and loved as the ghostly intercessor of men, and regarded as himself partaking of the ghostly nature, for the divinity which hedged a king in those days was no empty title, but a sober fact. He was regarded as able to bestow or withhold blessings; to bring blight and curse, and remove them; and so, being above and beyond the control of his subjects, reverence and fear would easily pass into adoration and worship. To us this may appear strange, but it is quite consistent with savage thought. To the savage African or South Sea Islander the world is largely, if not exclusively, worked by supernatural agents, and these act on impulses similar to those which move and influence men, and with which he
is familiar in himself and others. Where the forces of nature are under the control of the king-priest, the worshipper sees no limit to his power and the influence he can exert on the course of nature, or even upon the material universe itself, as when a man's father's spirit shakes the earth because the king hurt his toe. He holds converse with the gods. From them come abundant crops, fecundity, success in war, and kindred blessings, and the king who bestows these is regarded as having the god residing in his own person; to the savage man he is himself divine.
There is another way by which the idea of a man-god may be reached. In all countries we find traces of a system of thought which attributed to sympathetic magic events which can only happen in the ordinary course of nature, but which are supposed to be produced by will-power through some object. One of the leading principles of this sympathetic magic is, that any effect may be produced by the imitation of it. * Perhaps the most familiar illustration of this is the Highland "Corp Creadh." This consisted, or consistsfor it is said the practice is not extinctof a clay image of the person to be bewitched being made and placed on a door, taken off the hinges, before a large and constantly replenished fire. Sharp thorns, pins and needles, were pushed into it; oaths and imprecations were uttered over it, the victim writhing in agony the while; elf arrows were darted against it, and the fire stirred to a blaze as the image was turned and toasted to make the sufferer feel all the torments of the damned.
[paragraph continues] Finally, the "Corp Creadh" was broken to pieces, when the patient died a horrible death, blue flames issuing from his mouth. In Africa a small bundle, with a charm, tied to a pigeon's leg, keeps the person bewitched nervous and restless as the bird flits from twig to twig. If no accident happens to the charm or the bird that carries it, there is no hope for the patient's recovery; he will simply be worried to death.
This magic sympathy goes farther. It is supposed to exist between a man and any portion of his person that may be severed from the body, as cut nails, hair, saliva, or even the impression left when he sits down on the grass. The same sympathy exists between persons hunting, fishing, on a journey, or at war, and those left behind. If those who remain at home break any of the prescribed rules, disaster or failure overtakes those of their friends who are absent. According to the same superstition, animals, fowls, and crops may be influenced through tufts of hair, feathers, or green leaves of corn as the case may be, and among savages elaborate precautions are taken for their protection and preservation. "Medicine" poured out on the path by which a man usually approaches his dwelling affects him,. should he return by that path, as if he had swallowed it. A hair from a cow's tail steeped in the virus of any disease prevalent among cattle will affect the animal from which it was taken, and through it the herd. A green leaf of corn scorched against a fire, or placed where it will mildew, will produce drought or blight in the field or district
from which it was taken. These are illustrations of the evils that may be produced by sympathetic magic, but it is capable of being applied to good purposes also.
A South African, in calling a village to a hunt, goes from hut to hut imitating the movements of some well-known animal of the chase. The villagers pelt him with cow-dung, which he does his best to avoid. Should he be well bespattered when he has finished his rounds, the hunt will be successful; if not, it will be entered upon in a heartless manner, as all will expect failure. In Niass when a wild pig falls into a snare it is taken out and rubbed with nine fallen leaves, the belief being that this will cause nine other pigs to fall into the pit. * A South Sea Islander when unsuccessful with his nets walks about as if ignorant of their existence, till caught himself, after which he goes home assured of success on the morrow. As a boy, when fishing about Loch Aline, we often, when luck went against us, used to make pretence of throwing one of the fellows overboard and hauling him out of the water. After that trout or sillock began to nibble, according as we were on fresh water or salt. These superstitions are world-wide. Actions are performed or avoided by all peoples because they entail results similar to, or in some way connected with, the action. So it is that a fashionable lady will throw a pinch of salt over her shoulder when any has been spilled.
Another form of this superstition is securing certain desirable qualities of animals or objects
for oneself. A Kaffir warrior twines tufts of rat hair with his own, as this will give him a rat's chances of escape from the enemy's spears. Bechuanas use ferret-skins for a similar purpose, or it may be hair from a hornless ox, as being hard to catch and harder to hold. Thieves in South Africa affect the skin of the common wild cat, which is hardly ever caught when making descents on hen-roosts. There is not a savage who does not believe that he can influence nature in some direction, or secure qualities by means of sympathetic magic, and when any one obtains more than a village reputation for his gifts and powers, his deification is merely a question of time or of local accident. He by degrees ceases to be the receiver of divine communications, or the medium through which divine power is exercised, for divinity dwells within him; he is himself divine, and can by a touch or look, or even a wish, produce effects which result from divine power only, and which in their results go vibrating to the farthest confines of the universe.
The savage ruler who has attained to the honour of divinity is expected to give such evidence of his power as his people need for material prosperity and comfort, but not more than that. Of these, health and strength, victory in war, fecundity and abundant crops, may be regarded as the chief necessities of primitive man. A shrewd ruler might keep his reputation unimpaired for a lifetime, as regards both health and success in battle among a hardy race of people, nor would he be very much troubled by those desirous of issue in a land the
inhabitants of which are notoriously prolific. But the question of crops in seasons of drought, or when there is too great a rainfall, complicates the situation considerably. And when to these are added hailstorms, tornadoes, insect plagues, and the occasional frosts of tropical lands, it becomes manifest that the divine king sits on an uncertain throne, for all these phenomena he must direct and control for the benefit of himself and his people.
When the sky, for example, indicates the approach of a tornado accompanied by hail, the magician repairs to an eminence, where he collects as many people as can be hastily summoned to his assistance. These, under his direction and guidance, shout and bellow in imitation of the wind, when with hurricane force it swirls and eddies round the houses and among the forest trees. Then at a signal they imitate the crash of the thunder, after which there is a dead silence for a few seconds; then another screech, more piercing and long-continued than any that preceded, dying away in a tremulous wail. The priest fills his mouth with his own urine, which he squirts in defiant jets against the approaching storm, as a kind of menace or challenge to the wind spirit, the shouting and wailing being intended to frighten the storm spirit from approaching those who resist it. This is continued till the tornado bursts or passes away in another direction. In the former case more powerful magic sent it on the course it took; nothing more could have been done to avert it. This belongs to a more developed system of thought after the offices of
ruler and priest have been separated. I have scores of times watched South African magicians fighting the storm, and when successful the tone of proud arrogance assumed by the priest was most amusing, especially to those who did not believe in his power, and who at times included his own patron and chief.
This same belief in regard to the power of man to influence the wind by means of magic is found in all parts of the world. The Yakut takes a stone, found inside an animal or fish, and ties it to a stick with a horsehair. This he waves again and again round his head, and a cool breeze springs up. * The New Briton throws burned lime into the air when he wishes to make wind. Highland witches sold wind to credulous skippers in knots: one knot opened and a gentle wind blew; a second brought a snoring breeze; the third a full gale. A simple method of raising wind to retard the progress of a vessel was to draw the cat through the fire. How it came to be supposed that the suffering of poor pussy had an effect on the wind the author quoted failed to ascertain. It is well known that a cat scratching table or chair legs is raising wind, and I once heard a Scotch matron order her daughter to "drive out that beast: do ye no see shes making wind, and well no get a wisp o hay hame the day gin she goes on." Our Highland friends, too, could sink a ship at sea by placing an egg-shell in a tub of water and raising tiny wavelets to sink it. By sympathy the doomed ship sank.
Mariners the world over whistle for windby courtesy to Neptune in modern tines; formerly, as an act or exercise of power. I tried it once but that was long agoI am wiser nowand did raise wind; a hurricane of it, but it was from the skipper, who cursed me by all the gods he knew, and a good many he did not know, for "interfering with what ye know nothing about." The fear of that man has haunted me ever since. Hottentots cause the wind to drop by hanging a fat skin on a pole. The Kaffir raises it by exposing his posterior to the clouds. An Austrian during a storm will open his window and throw out a handful of meal, saying: "There, that's for you: stop." * Wind-bound fishermen in the Western Isles of Scotland believe that walking sunwise round the Chapel of Fladda, and pouring water on a particular stone, will bring a favourable breeze. If a mariner in the same region ties knots on a cow-hair tether, he may venture to sea, even during a violent gale, as he can, by means of his tether and knots, control the wind at will. Bedouins of East Africa go out to make war on the desert whirlwind, and drive their weapons into the dusty column to drive away the evil spirit that is believed to be riding on the storm. The Australians kill their storm-demons with boomerangs; while the Breton peasant, when a wisp of hay is lifted by the wind, throws a knife or fork at the wizard that is supposed to be disporting himself there.
Other powers of nature are similarly treated by the savage, and the custom is continued by his
civilised brother without any clear conception of the significance of his own actions. It is unnecessary to discuss the details of locust cursing and the banning of frosts, but the methods of making and preventing rain occupy such a large place in savage life that a detailed account is necessary if we are to understand man's early habits of thought, and how primitive usages developed into elaborate systems of ritual and religion.
The approved methods of rain-making vary considerably according to the fancies of the professors of the art. In Russia, men used to climb lofty trees with a vessel full of water. While seated on their airy perch, two firebrands were struck together to imitate lightning, and a drum beat as a substitute for thunder, during which the rain-maker sprinkled water from his vessel on all sides to produce a miniature shower in sympathy with which rain fell copiously. * This system of producing rain by imitation and sympathy is common in parts of South and South-east Africa, as among Hlubies and Swazies. The rain-doctor goes to a river, from which, with much mystic ceremony, he draws water, which he carries to a cultivated field. He then throws jets from his vessel high into the air, and the falling spray draws down the clouds and causes rain to fall in sympathy. In time of severe drought the Zulus look out for a "heaven bird," which is ordinarily sacred, kill it, and throw it into a pool of water.. Then the skies melt in pity for the bird and rain down tears of sorrow upon the earth. The
[paragraph continues] Lubare of the Wagogo is lord of heaven and of earth, and gives or withholds rain according as men conduct themselves towards it. New Caledonians dig up a body recently buried, and after they have removed and cleaned the bones they rejoint them and place the skeleton over taro leaves; water is then poured over it, which the spirit of the man who owned the skeleton takes up and showers down in plenteous rain. * The same motive comes out clearly in the mode of making rain common among peoples of South-eastern Europe. "In times of drought, the Servians strip a girl, clothe her in grass, herbs, and flowers, even her face being hidden with them. Thus disguised, she is called the Dodola, and goes through the village with a troop of girls. They stop before every house; the Dodola dances, while the other girls form a ring round her singing one of the Dodola songs, and the housewife pours a pail of water over her." Similar customs are observed by Greeks, Bulgarians and others.
These illustrations, which might be multiplied to any extent, show us clearly that the savage does not place any limitations to his own power over nature, and that early customs, once firmly rooted in the tribal or national mind, are observed by civilised men long after the faith that gave them birth has been forgotten and replaced by systems which, in the interval, may have been changed or modified many timescustoms which one moment's reflection shows to be as absurd as they are childish. But absurd as such actions may appear to us, there is
behind their a philosophy, and from them we learn the processes of the human mind, as, groping after knowledge, it proceeded on the road to the discovery of all the facts which make up the sum of the world's acquirements. Though at first sight the action of the savage seems as if based on the assumption that nature is a series of caprices, a closer study convinces us that his reasoning is based on the constancy of nature, or, as we would say, the persistency of natural laws. The savage expects the same causes to produce the same results at all times, however inadequate the cause may actually be, and the universality of this belief proves that it is Rio mere local philosophy, which is false root and branch, but a universal craving after knowledge on the basis of a philosophy where the premisses are false, but where, this defect apart, the conclusion is based on sound reasoning. What we call natural law the savage ascribes to his own power over the forces of the physical world.
The reason of this boundless confidence in himself on the part of primitive man is, that at first supernatural agents are not regarded as greatly superior to himself, and that at any time he may become one. These supernatural agents dwell in man, and their presence make him divine. To him acts of homage are paid. As the system develops, sacrifices are offered to him, and he is worshipped as a god. The office he holds is, or tends to become, hereditary; in any case, it is elective, and persons holding it are always sacred, frequently divine. Thus, the nominal King of the Monbutto is divine, a veritable man-god.
He may not be seen to eat by any one. What he leaves is thrown into a pit set apart for the purpose. Whatever he handles is sacred and may not again be used for any purpose. A guest of even the highest rank and honour may not light his pipe with an ember from the fire that burns before him. To do so would be punished by instant death. * What the results of shaking hands with his majesty would be it is hard to conjecture; probably a tremor reaching to the outermost circle of the universe.
When the Purra, or high priest of the Bulloms, West Africa, goes to a place, all women must, on pain of instant death, keep indoors or hide in the depth of the jungle; they must keep up a continual clapping of hands while he is pleased to remain, and should any of them be known to have a peep at the Purra, even through a chink, she would be executed instanter for her presumption in gazing on divinity. Jaggas, like many other East African peoples, regard their king as divine, and all his people do him reverence. Before a visitor can be admitted to his presence, he must be sprinkled with medicine by the magician. On all occasions his person is guarded with the most jealous care, and whatever touches him or comes from his person is sacred and must be treated with the utmost reverence; § as something differing from what was the king's simply, rather as having in itself the elements of divinity from its having belonged to one who is himself a man-god.
Engaithat is, the rain-cloudplaced the father of
the Wakuafi on the snow mountain, Killimanjaro. This first ancestor was an incarnation of Engai himself, and was exalted above all men. His children were demi-gods and the ancestors of the present ruling chiefs. * From him, or his incarnations, radiates everything, even the bodies of his subjects, for he is their god. This same form of king adoration and homage exists in Shoa, Abyssinia. The Wadoe address their king as "Lion of Heaven." When his majesty coughs or sneezes, all within hearing say "Muisa," which means, Lion or Lord of Heaven. The Gingane, or high priest of certain Congo tribes, is divine. His person is sacred, and .he is always accompanied by a novice who, in the event of his death, will receive or catch the divine element or soul which belongs to him in virtue of his office, and which, but for the novice's presence, might be lost or stolen.
Among the Baralongs all property belongs to the chief, as do also the bodies of his subjects. He acts as his own chief priest; is invariably called father, often lord. Zulus and Galekas acknowledge the chief as universal owner, and regard themselves as his, body and soul. The Kings of Dahomey and Ashantee are veritable gods, without any gilding to conceal their glory; as is also the Grand Lama of Thibet. Men pronounce the King of Dahomey's name with bated breath, fearing the very walls may whisper of the great name being used profanely. § Among South African tribes there is a marked aversion to pronouncing the chiefs name, and it is never
done when it can by any possibility be avoided by them.
Makusa, the spirit par excellence of the Wagogo and Waganda, leaves his quarters in Lake Nyanza at intervals, and takes up his abode in a man or woman, who becomes Lubare, * or, in other words, a god. The Lubare is supreme, not only in matters of faith and sacrifice, but in questions of war and state policy. When councillors were questioned by Mackay regarding the nature of the Lubare, or Makusa who dwelt in the Lubare, they replied that the Lubare is a bullthis because the Lubare represents the principle of universal life. Again, the Lubare was described as a wandering spirit, and finally, as a man who becomes a Lubare. The first is probably the more general belief regarding the Lubare as possessed by Makusa.
When Makusa enters a man he becomes a Lubare, and is removed, by Makusa presumably, about a mile and a half from the margin of the lake, and there waits the advent of the new moon before beginning operations. When the first faint crescent is discerned the king and all his subjects are from that hour under the orders of the Lubare. The king orders a flotilla of canoes to start on a trading expedition; the Lubare hears of it; countermands the king's instructions, and is obeyed. Whatever the divine man orders must be done. If he takes a fancy for a trifle of five hundred heads as a sacrifice, the king's executioners must post themselves on the highways to catch wayfarers till the
requisite number is made up. Or should his fancy suggest the extermination of a weak neighbouring tribe, the warriors must be called by beat of drum, and he on the war-path before the dawn of day. The king, absolute, despotic, tyrannical as he is, becomes for the time being the agent through whom the executive is carried on by the Lubare.
The chief Lakonga, at the south end of the lake, calls himself a god, and is treated as such by his people * who prostrate themselves before hint as they approach, anal perform such acts of worship as are rendered to true divinity. At times, however, there are rival claimants as being descended from the same god ancestor long before, which is a little confusing, and has tended to bring the office into disrepute. Still, the fact remains that the present ruler claims divinity, and his claim is acknowledged, though odd sceptics may exist, especially among those who supported the claims of rivals.
In Laongo the king is worshipped as a god, and is called Sambee and Pango, words which mean god. When rain falls and crops are plentiful they load him with gifts and honours. If the seasons are bad, so that crops fail and fish cannot be caught, Le is accused of having a bad heart and is deposed; but this belongs rather to the practice of killing the god, which falls to be discussed in another connection. Traces of the same kingly divinity can still be found lingering among the Celtic races of Europe. The extraordinary sanctity of the chief's person among Scottish Highlanders of a past generation seems to
have been nothing else than a lingering survival of divinity in the head of the clan.
From this rapid and fragmentary survey of the position occupied in the world's earliest religious ordinances by the king or ruler, we may safely infer that the claims put forward to divine and supernatural powers by great monarchs like those of ancient Egypt, Mexico, Peru, Japan, and Chaldea, as in the time of Daniel, was not so much the pride of power and the vanity of men accustomed to fulsome flattery and adulation, as a survival of a belief once universal among men. The union of sacred functions and claims to divinity with civil and political power meets us at every turn. It goes to confirm the traditional account given of the sacrificial king at Rome and the origin of the priestly kings in republican Greece, nor does the multiplicity of gods in classical times present the same difficulties which might at first sight be supposed, for among primitive men we find kings who are regarded as divine presiding over particular departments of nature; departmental kings, as Mr. Frazer calls them. * At the mouth of the Congo resides Namvula Ruma as "king of the rain and storm." His functions do not extend beyond his own department, but there he reigns supreme, and is regarded as divine by mariners and agriculturists. In Abyssinia an office exists known as "the priesthood of the Alfai," which is hereditary and kingly. He, too, is a king of rain, and is supposed to avert drought and produce necessary showers. Should he in this
disappoint the people's expectations, he is stoned to death, and a successor chosen; no easy task when the heavens are as brass and the ground as iron. The offices performed by the mysterious kings of fire and water in the backwoods of Cambodia, seem to have a close resemblance to those of the king of rain and storm at the Congo and the priest of the Alfai in Abyssinia. Of the mysterious Cambodian monarchs not much is known, and their existence might have passed as a myth, but for the real king exchanging presents with them annually. No one travelled to their domains, and the gifts were passed on from tribe to tribe till they reached their destination, after which the return present of a wax candle and two calabashes began an erratic pilgrimage to the king who had despatched the gifts to his mysterious subjects and equals, or more than equals. The functions of the kings of fire and water were purely spiritual. They claimed no civil power or political authority, and lived simply as peasants. They lived apart, and gifts were brought furtively and left where they could find them. Their offices are hereditary and last seven years, but owing to the hard and solitary life many are said to die during their term of office. Naturally the dignity is not coveted, and like the Alfai priesthood there is difficulty in finding suitable candidates from among those who are eligible for office.
Did the scope of our inquiry permit, a king of the wood and of the sea could be found among primitive men, but enough has been said to show the general relations subsisting between man, as he
first began to look out on the world and wander hither and thither over the face of the globe, and the supernatural, which to him was an utterly unknown world. We shall now turn to the consideration of the care man bestowed on those who, according to his conception of the constitution of the universe, were its supernatural agents or divinities.
2: J. G. Frazer, Golden Bough.
3:* J. G. Frazer, Golden Bough.
5:* J. G. Frazer, Golden Bough.
8:* sc J. G. Frazer, Golden Bough.
8: A. Polson, Gaelic Society Memoirs.
9:* J. G. Frazer, Golden Bough.
10:* W. Mannhardt.
10: Bishop Callaway.
11:* Turner, Samoa.
11: J. G. Frazer.
15:* Mackay of Uganda.
16:* Mackay of Uganda.
16: J. G. Frazer.
17:* J. G. Frazer, Golden Bough.